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If you've seen 'Little Big Soldier' or 'Police Story 2013', you'll know
better than to expect Jackie Chan's third collaboration with Mainland
filmmaker Ding Sheng to be a martial arts showcase of the former's
acrobatic stunts. And sure enough, despite being billed as 'a Jackie
Chan action-comedy blockbuster', 'Railroad Tigers' is really an
ensemble piece set against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of
East China in the early 1940s. Based upon true events, Chan plays a
humble railroad worker named Ma Yuan who leads a ragtag team from his
village to blow up a critical transportation route across the Hanzhuang
bridge for the Japanese to send supplies to their troops at the
Once again assuming both writing and directing duties, Ding Sheng keeps the premise appealingly simple. Not content to toil for the invading Japanese in their respective jobs, Ma Yuan and his fellow railroad workers as well as a bunch of other working-class village folk take to robbing them every now and then indeed, it is in the midst of one such daring midday robbery of a passenger train carrying a group of Japanese soldiers and their pillages that the members of the titular ragtag team are introduced via title cards. An Eighth Route army soldier Daguo (Darren Wang) stumbles into Ma Yuan's humble but cosy village house one night while evading capture by the Japanese, the former recounting how his platoon had tried but failed to detonate the aforementioned bridge. Upon his recovery, Daguo insists on returning to his platoon. Alas, Daguo fails to make it back before being shot by the Japanese, so Ma Yuan decides to assemble the team to complete his assignment and in so doing, realises their collective hopes of 'doing something big' or '干票大 的'.
Though his previous movies seemed to demonstrate his predilection for character-driven storytelling, Ding Sheng is all out for visual spectacle here, structuring his narrative around a series of extended action sequences the opening train robbery is an ambitious start that also sets a playful tone, followed by a raid on the armoury warehouse at Shaguo station to procure the explosives needed to blow up the bridge, then a heroic attempt to rescue Ma Yuan and his associate Rui (Jaycee Chan) imprisoned by the Japanese in a square metal cell on board another moving train, and last but not least the loudest, longest and undeniably overblown (pardon the pun) setpiece to hijack a Japanese military transport locomotive intended as the very 'bomb' itself. In between are scenes meant to emphasise the camaraderie between the ragtag team of revolutionaries, arguably too short and too sparse for any individual character except Ma Yuan and Rui to make much impression.
That said, 'Railroad Tigers' probably bears the least character work among all of Ding Sheng's movies so far. Ma Yuan's status as leader seems premised solely on his age and paternal instincts, and other than hinting at a slow-burn romance with the village pancake seller Auntie Qin, there is little else that defines him. The same goes for the other railroad workers Rui and Dagui (Ping Sang) as well as the other members of the 'Tigers' amateur tailor Dahai (Huang Zitao), handywoman Xing'er (Xu Fan) and serial pickpocketer San Laizi (Alan Ng). Because Chan plays Ma Yuan low-key and unassuming, it is former warlord bodyguard Fan Chuan (Wang Kai) who steals his thunder whenever the latter is on screen, putting his sharpshooting skills to good use especially during shootouts with the Japanese. Next to the Tigers, the Japanese are defined by the cocky military police captain Yamaguchi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), his stern no-nonsense female colleague Yuko (Zhang Lanxin) and to a lesser extent the bumbling station master Sakamoto (Kôji Yano). With the sheer number of characters, it is not difficult to see why there is little time to develop any of them, such that each becomes known by and large by his or her relation to the unfolding narrative.
Like we said earlier, the action takes centrestage, interspersed now and then with slapstick gags that do not always hit the mark. Chan's good-natured goofiness is still amusing, but the humour borders on childish at times, and undercuts the build-up of dramatic tension especially during the supposedly tense and dangerous situations. In fact, an extended gag that sees Yamaguchi consume not one but two drugged pancakes prepared by Auntie Qin which causes him fall asleep while the Tigers act to rescue Ma Yuan and Rui as well as turn lecherous against the male deputy station master held for interrogation is downright farcical besides raising suspicions of the filmmakers' disdain towards the Japanese, it also diminishes the intended display of bravery of the Tigers.
It doesn't matter that 'Railroad Tigers' contains next to none of Jackie Chan's death-defying stunts; in fact, true fans of the martial arts actor should be happy that his films are not solely defined by how high he jumps or how far he leaps. Oh no, Ding Sheng's latest collaboration with Chan is underwhelming because it seems no more than an excuse for the former to live out his childhood fantasies of trains in a big-budget motion picture, disguising his fancies under a purported celebration of the heroism of a group of ordinary civilians displayed in the anti-Japanese war effort. Ironically, his latest film could have benefited with more of the self-seriousness in 'Police Story 2013' (which was accused of being too sombre), instead of letting the often foolish and even self-indulgent humour to dilute the action and drama. Ding's inspiration is also the Hollywood Westerns of trains and train heists, and on that level alone, 'Railroad Tigers' is certainly watchable; but for a Jackie Chan movie, it is undeniably disappointing, not least because Chan doesn't even get to do much beyond appearing next to his son and/or a whole bunch of other Mainland actors.
If 'Sword Master' seems an odd entry into Derek Yee's filmography in
light of his recent gritty urban dramas like 'One Night in Mongkok',
'Protégé' and 'Shinjuku Incident', it is really a return to his 'wuxia'
roots. Together with his producer and co-screenwriter Tsui Hark, Yee
plots his modern-day update of the 1977 classic Shaw Brothers film
'Death Duel' first from the perspective of Yen Shih-san (Peter Ho), who
gets the first stylised CGI-heavy swordsfight of the movie on a snowy
stone bridge duelling with a vengeful but poorly matched opponent Gao
looking for revenge for his second brother. Yen eventually kills his
opponent, but is told by onlookers that he cannot claim to be the
greatest swordsman unless he prevails over someone known as Third
Master. And so he sets out on that very quest, which brings him to the
Supreme Sword Manor where the Third Master's Hsieh Clan reside. It is
there he meets the Manor's Lord and learns that the Third Master has
been dead for 37 days, a news he receives with disbelief and
uncontrolled rage. Turns out Yen is afflicted with an incurable
illness, and his impending death coupled with a loss of purpose leaves
him content to live his remaining days in obscurity at a graveyard
outside Bitter Sea Town.
Without any further context at this point, the narrative shifts to a drunk man who stumbles into a brothel claiming to be rich but is only found to be penniless by its Madam after overstaying five days. And so he agrees to pay his dues by working as their errand boy named Ah Chi (Lin Gengxin), despised by most of the arrogant courtesans except one named Li (Jiang Mengjie), whom he takes a blade for after two belligerent customers refuse to pay for her service. Though it may seem that Chi acted out of love for Li, the truth is far more complicated lost and disillusioned, Chi no longer has regard for his own life, content to live it out whether in humility or humiliation. So before Li or the brothel's owner can reward him, Chi leaves and heads for a nondescript village to join the boorish but good-hearted Mao (Tie Nan) as a sewage collector.
By this point, it is clear that Ah Chi is really the Third Master Hsieh Hsiao-feng that Yen seeks, who we will learn through subsequent flashbacks has tired of the blade and duty to the clan after realising how his conquests to be number one have only led to vicious cycles of killing and revenge. Certainly, Hsiao-feng's past will catch up with him not through Yen though but rather by his jilted ex-lover Chiu-ti (Jiang Yiyan), whom he abandoned on the day of their arranged marriage that was supposed to unite the Hsieh and Mu Yung clans. While it may seem that Chiu-ti is driven by hurt, it turns out that she is torn between love and hate. Whereas, it is her pageboy Chu who only harbours the latter for Hsiao-feng, thus setting up an ultimate showdown which pits the Supreme Sword Manor against Chiu-ti's Seven Star Pool and the former's other arch-rival Purple Might. What about Yen? We won't spoil the surprise for you, but let's just say that Yen and Hsiao-feng leave the best for last and for good reason, mind you.
Rather than just a modern-day rehash of its predecessor, 'Sword Master' takes a decidedly character-driven approach to its storytelling, emphasising each one's motivations and therefore their conflicts relative to each other. Hsiao-feng wants to escape from his birth legacy as well as his haunted past but realises that moving forward means facing up to the repercussions; Chiu-ti too is trapped by her past but her wounded pride binds her and Hsiao-feng in a vortex of hurt, hate and ultimately harm. Yen, on the other hand, learns to let go of his obsession for prestige, and his unexpected turn as protector, mentor and buddy to Hsiao-feng's Ah Chi is a refreshing break from cliché. Li may seem like the blander female role, but there is a nice touch of irony in her (as a prostitute no less) being the virtuous one next to the vindictive Chiu-ti. Across the board, the performances are competent, if slightly mediocre, so it is a relief the well-written characters nevertheless keeps us hooked.
Just as, if not more, captivating are the visuals, which are ravishing in their own right. To be sure, Yee isn't intending for realism here; instead, he aims for a self-aware visual artifice of sharp contrasts, switching effortlessly between studio sets and CGI to achieve an aesthetic befitting of mythology and legend. That same sensibility informs the action choreography by Yuen Bun and Dion Lin, staged with elegance and grace in every stroke. Each action sequence of balletic wirework is top-notch, enhanced for depth of field to give a thrillingly kinetic experience for viewers, especially those who have the privilege of catching it in 3D.
Like we said at the start, even though 'Sword Master' may seem like an odd addition to Yee's directorial oeuvre, it is very much a distinguished one, informed clearly by Yee's own love and flair for the 'wuxia' genre as well as that of his producer Tsui's. Fans of the genre will no doubt recognise Yee's reverence for its tropes, especially narratively, and hopefully come to appreciate his reinvention of the visuals through CGI and impressive wirework. Oh yes, there is both beauty and thrill in the action, and 'Sword Master' is one of the most beautiful martial arts extravaganzas you'll see in recent time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
While Sony's blockbuster slate has been pretty sluggish in the box
office, their horror label Screen Gems has enjoyed better success from
low-budgeted thrillers like Don't Breathe and two popular franchises,
Resident Evil and Underworld -the former releasing its sixth and final
chapter next January and Kate Beckinsale reprising her role as death
dealer Selene for the fifth time in the latter.
Picking up after the events of Underworld: Awakening which sees the birth of Selene's hybrid daughter, Eve. Underworld: Blood Wars opens with Selene being haunted by her own kind and Lycans as both sides are out to seek the blood of Eve. The Vampires are losing the war as the Lycans clan led by Marius (Tobias Menzies from Game of Thrones) is getting stronger by the day. On the pretext of seeking assistance from Selene, the scheming Semira (Lara Pulver) approaches her help to train a new batch of death dealers. Unbeknownst to her, an internal rife is brewing and Selene's only ally happens to be David (Theo James from Divergent), the son of Vampire Elder, Thomas (Charles Dance from Games of Thrones yet again).
German-born cinematographer (White House Down) and TV director (Outlander, Criminal Minds) Anna Foerster takes over the directing duties for this instalment. It is frankly a thankless task to take over a franchise that hardly wins over the critics over the years but Foerster does a commendable job balancing the story and insane action sets. For the relatively brief running time, Foerster and her screenwriters Cory Goodman (The Last Witch Hunter) and Kyle Ward (Machete Kills) provides the various lead characters enough exposition and screen time for audiences to connect the dots at least for the first 45 minutes.
Besides being a family member to Selene, David is also on a journey to find out his true birth heritage that concerns his mysterious mother who left him after childbirth. The ambitious Semira and her aide cum lover Varga (Bradley James) plots to conquer the Vampire faction and Selene is constantly battling her own inner demons. On the Lycan side, the powerful Lycan leader Marius has a dark secret of his own. We are even introduced to the mysterious vampires residing in the cold Nordic coven. Honestly, you can't really blame the franchise for not trying to expand the Vampire mythos which in actual fact it actually does.
For Underworld fans who are hungry for more blood and gore, Underworld: Blood Wars has no lack of it. The last 45 minutes is an action- packed bloodletting orgy of sorts. Heads are sliced, countless shots are fired and it even boasts a WTF moment when two leads start firing at each other at close range. It's great to see some slick action choreography being displayed particularly the scene where Selene battles the transformed Marius on top of a frozen seabed.
Obviously because of time constraint and budget, CGI is favored over animatronic effects for the Lycans, which accounts for the weakest aspect of all. There is decent cinematography, excellent location shoot in Prague and rather impressive set designs. Best of all, Kate Beckinsale remains the draw in her ass-tight spandex. She seems not have aged a day since she first played Selene in the original 2004's Underworld, such that one wonders if she is really a death dealer in reality. For a dumb action fantasy, Underworld: Blood Wars certainly entertains, and obviously the franchise is very much opened to further developments.
It may wear its tag of being the first significant 'French-Chinese
co-production' proudly on its sleeve, but 'The Warrior's Gate' is
really no more than a rehash of another East-meets-West action comedy
that you may remember from about a decade ago called 'The Forbidden
Kingdom'. Like the latter, it sends an American teenager back to
ancient China where he learns to summon the warrior inside of him and
teams up with a noble companion to save a kingdom from the clutches of
an evil warlord. Like the latter, its humour is based on self-aware
anachronism and its action of the traditional 'wushu' variety. And last
but not least, like the latter, it lets its modern-day Caucasian male
protagonist fall in love with a steely yet gentle female from that era,
the inter-ethnic coupling not only to pander to the teenage demographic
but also to ensure its appeal to audiences on both sides of the
continent. And yet, if you're willing to put aside the obvious
similarities, you're likely to find this reiteration more entertaining
than you're expecting it to be.
Such faint praise however is also premised on little expectation at the start, which is a prerequisite for any manner of enjoyment. You should not, in the first instance, expect it to make much sense, for it gives scant regard to logic or coherence. As its hero Jack Bronson (newcomer Uriah Shelton) does, you should simply accept with little question that the English-speaking Chinese warrior Zhao (Mark Chao) in steel armour and straw hat who suddenly appears next to his bedside one evening has indeed travelled through a time portal in a waist-height drum-shaped chest he had received as a gift from the antiques dealer he helps out at after school. You should also accept the warrior's explanation that the young lady who shows up with him dressed like a princess (Ni Ni) is indeed one, and that she is on the run from some very terrible people. And while we're at it, you should accept that you are the hero they seek called 'The Black Knight' because that is the name of your avatar in a similar video game and not hesitate to journey back in time to fulfil your destiny. Like we said, disbelief is pointless if you intend to buy into its premise.
And so begins a fantasy adventure that sees Jack jump into the portal when said Princess Sulin is kidnapped by fierce-looking Mongol and Viking-like warriors and taken back to ancient China, where the barbarian named 'Arun the Cruel, the Horrible, the Terrible, the Miserable' (or 'Arun the Cruel' in short, played by Dave Bautista) has arranged their forced marriage in order to become Emperor. Jack thus teams up with Zhao to journey across the undulating lands to Arun's lair, with some timely help here and there from a trickster wizard named Wu (Francis Ng) who may or may not have something to do with Jack's current predicament. Theirs is a buddy trip, where encounters with a vile mountain spirit (Kara Wai) and a trio of wicked witches (think Macbeth) will foster the bond of brotherhood between them, such that Zhao will come to teach Jack the basics of kung fu and Jack will impress upon Zhao how the latter's life could be a happier place if he simply learnt to have fun from time to time.
It is no mystery whether Jack and Zhao will rescue Princess Sulin in time before her fateful marriage with Arun, or for that matter if Jack will eventually turn out to be the valiant 'Black Knight' that prophecy had foretold. Neither the climactic rescue on the morning of the forced union nor the ensuing one-on-one between Jack and Arun will raise your pulse you've probably seen bigger, better and more exciting ones from China/ Hong Kong period war epics like this year's 'Call of Heroes'. Indeed, what's more notable is how director Matthias Hoene balances comedy and drama to keep the tone jocular without being satirical and thoughtful without being melodramatic. That is really more difficult than it looks, considering its far- fetched premise and the tendency of such East-West mishmashes to end up reinforcing the worst cultural stereotypes of each. It is these same sensitivities that inform the somewhat multiple endings, which suffice to say are specifically crafted in order not to land up forcing Jack and Sulin to choose his or her world over the other.
In the end, the fact that it doesn't take itself too seriously is essentially why this potential misfire turns out a pleasant surprise by being mildly winning. Like we said at the start, we weren't expecting much from this rip-off of 'The Forbidden Kingdom', which was itself diverting but disposable entertainment. The same can be said of 'The Warrior's Gate', but at least not Hoene or its French co-writers (Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen) or its East-West cast deny. Heck, even the typical over-the-top villain such as Arun gets in on the fun with a running joke about his over-enthusiastic but dull right-hand man Brutus who keeps executing the wrong person. The young lead cast of Shelton, Chao and Ni Ni also have good chemistry between them, such that we root for the Shelton and Chao as well as Shelton and Ni Ni as buddies and lovers respectively from two different eras. As long as you keep your expectations right, you won't end up disappointed, which is pretty much already an accomplishment for a movie like this that you're probably thinking will bomb.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
How do you make a 'Harry Potter' movie without Harry Potter? Before the
last of the eight films of J.K. Rowling's staggeringly popular universe
five years ago, that must have been the conundrum facing Warner
Brothers executives as they stared at the end of the line of their most
lucrative franchise. And yet thanks to Rowling herself as well as
series stalwart David Yates, there is once again new life to be found
in the world of witchcraft and wizardry that she had dreamt up in the
seven books of the boy wonder. The inspiration is one of Harry's
textbooks at Hogwarts, an essential text which served as a guide to
magical animals written by one Newt Scamander. Rowling had written it
into a companion piece in 2001, but as those who had read the 128- page
book will tell you, there is a lot more that Rowling must have had to
add to her first movie script even as an adaptation of that earlier
That explains why the film's narrative feels like two parallel story lines, both of which are set in the 1920s in New York City. The first (and the one more obviously drawn from her text) concerns the magizoologist and former Hogwarts student's (Eddie Redmayne) arrival with a suitcase of magical creatures in tow. He's here to do field work for the titular book that he's writing, but no thanks to a mix- up involving a klutzy working-class 'no-maj' (meaning 'muggle' or ordinary, non-magical human) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), some of the beasts Newt keeps hidden in his suitcase which is really a magical device enclosing a massive nature preserve have escaped. Together with two comely female wizards, the struggling investigator Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), Newt and Jacob set out to chase down these creatures before they wreak more havoc on the city.
And yet their blithe adventure could not have taken place in a more complicated time not only has the Magical Congress of the United States (or MACUSA in short) set out strict rules against the revelation of the existence of wizards and/or the wizarding world, its meticulously cautious Madam President (Carmen Ejojo) has outlawed the possession of all beasts. There is perhaps good reason though the city is torn by a mysterious force purportedly to be that of an Obscurus, a dark and uncontrollable power manifested by wizards who have repressed (rather than being taught to control) their innate powers. Rounding out the second, and much darker, story is a missing dark wizard called Gellert Grindelward (Johnny Depp), which the opening prologue via numerous newspaper reels informs us has gone underground since his dark doings in Europe. It's no secret that Grindelward and by extension, Depp, whom we see only briefly at the end of the movie, will take up much of the acreage of the four other 'Fantastic Beasts' films that Yates and Rowling have planned.
Given how this needs to set the stage for the beginning of a new franchise, there is understandably yards of exposition and a lot of introductions to do within the just-over two hours it has. It also means that, aside from its city-shaking cataclysm of a climax, this is pretty much like an origin story, such that like the first 'Harry Potter' movie, one gets the distinct sense that it is holding back for bigger and hopefully even more intriguing things down the road.
Not to say that this first of a quintet isn't charming in and of itself; oh no, in fact, we are confident that Potter fans and newcomers alike will find much to love and beguile of the rich and fascinating fictional world that Rowling has created. Indeed, there is sheer delight in discovering the menagerie of creatures that Newt has hidden in his briefcase among them a scene-stealing platypus with a penchant for stealing shiny things, a majestic avian which changes shape and size to fill any available space, and a tiny stick-like green insect that can pick locks. Before things get serious, the early scenes with Newt and his unlikely companions pop with escapist fun, not least when he and Jacob get caught in incriminating situations by law enforcement while pursuing their small, furry and oh-so-cute kleptomaniac around bank vaults and jewelry stores. It is also here that we get to savour more fully the effortlessly endearing Redmayne and Fogler, one quirkily adorable as the shy and slightly awkward boy-man and the other an unassuming bumbler whose wide-eyed wonder upon the world previously hidden from his eyes channels our very own.
Like how she did with Harry, Ron and Hermoine, Rowling gets a strong character dynamic going around the four cohorts, including a budding attraction between Newt and his Auror-turned-ally Tina as well as a gentle romance between Jacob and Queenie. It is these characters that anchor the busy plotting in the second hour with heartfelt emotion.
Even so, the beautifully ornate production design shines through every frame, whether a seedy underground jazz club with all manner of peculiar (if slightly grotesque) creatures to Manhattan's old City Hall subway station where the climax unfolds. The special effects are equally stellar, particularly the transition from our world to that inside the suitcase and a breathtaking scene where the Obscurus wrecks destruction across several of New York's skyscrapers before plunging into the City Hall station. And of course, the close-ups of the various beasts are just as visually stunning, some scary, some cuddly, some ethereal and some just downright goofy. Even without the appeal of adorable young children, 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them' is pure enchantment, perfectly setting the stage for a whole new chapter of the wizarding world we've come to embrace through the 'Harry Potter' films. To call it fantastic may be slightly hyperbolic, but you'll be glad to know it doesn't fall too far short.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If you've never heard of L, Light, Kira, Misa, Ryuk or for that matter
the Death Notes, then we suggest that you catch up with the first three
movies of the 'Death Note' film franchise before watching this fourth
chapter. Oh yes, despite set ten years after 'Death Note 2: The Last
Name', this new instalment by 'Gantz' and 'I Am A Hero' director
Shinsuke Sato draws heavily from its predecessors among the key
members of the task force set up to investigate the new rash of Death
Note murders is Ryuzaki (Sosuke Ikematsu), an Interpol officer who has
inherited L's DNA and therefore not only his spiritual but also
biological successor; the main nemesis is also codenamed 'Neo Kira' (or
'New Kira'), after the nickname that Light uses to execute his own
brand of vigilante justice; and last but not least, there are
appearances by L, Light, Misa and Ryuk in both physical and digital
form to draw reference to their legacy from the earlier movies.
It is therefore somewhat inevitable that 'Death Note: Light Up the New World' is compared against the earlier Shūsuke Kaneko's duology, but unfortunately that comparison does no favours to this latest addition. Central to the thrill of the first two 'Death Note' movies was the battle of wits between L and Light, each of whom recognized the imperfections of the existing system of law and order but had fundamental disagreements over how to make things right and between them of course was the death god Ryuk, who had his own ambitions but was ultimately constrained by the rules governing the gods assigned to the 'death note(book)'. That same cerebral tension is sorely missing in this adaptation, which struggles to summon the same level of cleverness in the to-and-fro between Ryuzaki and Yuki Shien (aka the 'Neo Kira'); neither do we find the same exchange of intellectual plotting between Ryuzaki and his fellow bright-eyed investigator Tsukuru Mishima (Masahiro Higashide), who have their fair share of run-ins given the former's unconventional methods.
Worse, in trying to be smart, Sato and his screenwriter Katsunari Mano tie the narrative in some implausible twists and turns especially in the last half-hour. The so-called 'Neo Kira' turns out to be someone else. Mishima is not quite who he says he is. Ryuzaki 'cheats' death in a similar way that L used to trap Light. And one of Mishima's teammates turns out to be the vengeful sister of a victim who died at the hands of the 'Neo Kira'. As fast-paced as these revelations come, they come off unconvincing. Are we supposed to accept that Ryuzaki can just waltz into the Metro Police's headquarters and break Mishima out of detention, after he is accused by his superior of withholding critical information from the investigation? Are we supposed to accept that the both of them can then access the same headquarters' vaults to retrieve one of the 'death note(books)' the Police has managed to retrieve? Indeed, there is a blatant disregard for logic as the film tries to stay one step ahead of its audience, but the surprises are just too far- fetched.
Without sufficient character work between Ryuzaki, Mishima and Yuki Shien, it is pretty much left up to the plotting to sustain interest throughout its two-hours plus runtime. Admittedly, things do start off intriguing as not one but six notebooks are found to be circulating around the world which is the reason for a Russian prologue that sees a doctor discover one of them and unintentionally cause the death of one of his close friends/ patients but, for obvious budgetary reasons, these notebooks quickly and inexplicably find themselves in Tokyo, Japan, which the taskforce comprising of only Japanese is assigned to track down. A cyber-terrorism link that could have taken the story in a fresh new direction is also under- developed, such that the narrative is reduced to no more than a police procedural around the hunt for the 'Neo Kira'. There is a fair bit of excitement no doubt, but the fact that the proceedings unfold on a much smaller scale is inevitably disappointing.
Sadly too, the combined talent of Higashide, Ikematsu and Sada cannot quite make up for the considerable absence of Kenichi Matsuyama and Tatsuya Fujiwara (who had played L and Light respectively). There is a palpable sense of joy seeing them on the screen, which promptly evaporates once we realize that they are no more than cameos. The advances in CGI have made the 'shinigamis' (or 'death gods') look much more imposing and humbling though, including a white female one named Arma (voiced by Miyuki Sawashiro) that forms an intimate connection with Ryuzaki. But besides Ryuzaki and Arma, the bond between (notebook) bearer and god (including that between Yuki Shien and Ryuk here) is hardly fleshed out, lacking therefore the nuances which characterized that between Light and Ryuk in the previous two movies.
As an addition to the film franchise, 'Death Note: Light Up the New World' pales in comparison is probably the weakest next to 'L: Light Up the World'. There is no exposition on the philosophical conundrums of the Death Notes, of being able to judge and decide who lives and who dies, nor for that matter of how that power changes its wielder (as it did Light). There is also little intellectual machination that the earlier two films had, or character intricacies that made L and Light such complex and fascinating characters in their own right. In place is a fitfully exciting police procedural that only becomes more and more ridiculous as it tries to outwit itself, ending on a predictably open note that leaves the possibility of a sequel all but inevitable. Alas, its very title proves a misnomer not only does it not light up a new beginning, it pretty much casts a dull shadow on the franchise by expending much of the goodwill built up by its far superior predecessors.
Much to the disappointment of fans of the stylish period whodunit 'The
Bullet Vanishes', Nicholas Tse did not return to star with Sean Lau in
its sequel last year, so it is understandable that 'Heartfall Arises'
arrives with a fair amount of expectation of their reunion. Alas those
expecting a similarly smart and intriguing psychological thriller
between the pair of Hong Kong Best Actors will likely be severely
disappointed, as 'Heartfall Arises' is much, much less clever than it
thinks itself to be or wants to be. Not only is it clumsily plotted, it
is just as ineptly directed, which magnifies its narrative flaws and
turns entire scenes into caricature, notwithstanding the considerable
acting talent on display.
Based on a story by its director Ken Wu, the Gu Shuli-scripted film builds itself on the pseudo-scientific hypothesis on cellular memory, which posits that memories can be stored in individual cells. If you believe in that hypothesis, then you'll probably also buy the idea that an organ transplant may possibly change a recipient's personality and it is said that heart transplants are most susceptible to cellular memory. It is for this reason that criminal psychologist Calvin Che (Lau) believes Major Crimes Unit detective John Ma (Tse) to be the perpetrator behind the latest series of serial murders which boast the same modus operandi as that which occurred one and a half years ago, given that Ma had received the heart of the murderer who went by the alias 'The General' (Gao Venga).
As cliché would have it, Ma happens to be the one who had shot 'The General' in the head in the first place, which left him critically injured and therefore in need of the transplant. Despite being spared of the complication of rejection, Ma starts to experience visions that he cannot quite explain most often of a girl by the beach whom he appears to be dating. That girl is in fact the General's fiancé, whom Ma not only feels a surge of emotions after seeing but decides to date over hotpot. Just as well then that he has apparently acquired the General's taste for spicy food, which his girlfriend-doctor (Mavis Hee) points out earlier on in the film. Oh yes, as Che explains at the start to his class, cellular memory could lead to the recipient acquiring the donor's memories, tastes and impulses.
Could Ma also have inherited the General's murderous impulses? Wu hopes to keep his audience guessing as the cat-and-mouse game between the police and the killer comes down to one between Che and Ma, as he teases the revelation that Che had also gone for an organ transplant around the same time as Ma. As you've probably already predicted, Ma's tendencies are no more than a red herring, and given that the General is out of the picture most of the time, it is not difficult to figure out who the copycat killer really is. With that mystery pretty much solved halfway into the film, all that remains is understanding the culprit's motive, which unfortunately Wu and his writer Gu struggle but fail to come up with anything compelling or even convincing.
Most glaring is how the General's modus operandi in which he sends out a warning to his next victim, usually a wealthy business cum benefactor, and warns of his or her death hours later is somehow forgotten two-thirds into the movie. Suddenly, what was previously referred to as 'Robin Hood-style' killings becomes one of vigilantism, and worse terrorism, for no apparent reason than spectacle; the latter referring to the big-bang climax you've seen in the trailer of an explosion taking out the iconic IFC building in Hong Kong's Central district. That same lack of discipline explains the manner in which Wu has cobbled together disparate tricks in the genre playbook in the name of providing the story some twists and turns, even if they make little sense as a coherent whole.
All the while, Wu uses the motif of a chess game to describe the battle of wits the first time Che and Ma meet each other is at a game of chess in the hospital grounds where both are recuperating from their respective operations; Ma names the General's plan 'The Gathering of the Seven Stars', which chess players will know as a complex endgame composition; and last but not least, Che continuously reminds Ma after that initial meeting that they are due for a rematch someday. Yet not the numerous references to the chess stratagems nor the occasional Friedrich Nietzsche quotes can quite disguise the fact that there is little ingenuity to the General's plan and by extension to the film's plotting, which is further exacerbated by Wu's directorial inexperience or obvious missteps that run the gamut from poorly edited action sequences to embarrassing use of CGI to plain bad framing.
These flaws ultimately waste the combined acting talent of Lau and Tse, who somehow lack the spark that they had in their previous collaboration. Lau seems quite utterly bored, and Tse invests similarly little in a role that is too thinly defined. Their co-stars come off even more insignificant given how poorly sketched their characters are in particular, the romantic subplots that link Tong and Hee to Tse are so badly developed that they are downright pointless. What was intended as a smart psychological thriller turns out very much, much less so, not as laughably bad as some reviews have claimed but certainly one of the worst Hong Kong films we've seen this year. Like its title, 'Heartfall Arises' often turns out illogical and even dumb, what pulse it raises likely out of frustration than excitement.
Perhaps it is this writer's lack of knowledge on Marvel, but compared
to the other groups of superheroes created by the American comic book
publisher, such as the Avengers, X-Men or even the Fantastic Four, Dr
Strange honestly draws a blank. That said, with the current
proliferation of formulaic superhero movies, this unfamiliarity might
have actually help the latest movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe,
For the non-Marvel comics' readers, Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a real doctor a neurosurgeon before getting into a horrific car accident that destroyed his hands and effectively ended his career. Unable to accept this result, Strange exhausted his resources trying to regain full control of his hands and in the process, alienated the only person who still cared for him, ex-lover Dr Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). As a last resort, Strange journeyed to Nepal to find a cure at the Kamar-Taj, met the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), started to practice the mystic arts, and in the process, somehow did not regain full functionality of his hands.
Just like how *Deadpool* was a breath of fresh air compared to the Avengers and X-Men series, Dr Strange was a departure from the angst- filled drama of its more established counterparts. Instead, the movie showcased its free-spirited 1960s origins, bringing to mind the trippy LSD-taking, orient-obsessed, self-proclaimed mystic bohemian vibe stereotypical of that era. This was put on full display when Strange first arrived at Kamar-Taj, and was forced on a roller-coaster ride through dimensions, galaxies and worlds. There is only that much of psychedelic-ness one can take before getting turned off by the kitsch, and the movie thankfully pushes that boundary but does not go pass it. On the other hand, what really made the 3D effect pop was, in my opinion, the fight scenes where the characters manipulate buildings and structures, bringing to mind the dreamscapes from *Inception* but with prettier, more symmetrical set design. If this is not your thing, perhaps just skip the 3D option.
As for the protagonist, Stephen Strange also fits nicely between the crass and never-serious Deadpool, and the overly stoic and tortured Captain America. Despite all his failings selfishness, arrogance and stubbornness Strange never quite felt like the high-performing genius and jerk he actually was. Kudos to Cumberbatch for that, who perhaps had more enough practice for the role while playing other socially awkward but brilliant people (Stephen Hawking and Sherlock Holmes in TV series *Hawking* and *Sherlock*, and Alan Turing from *the Imitation Game)*. As Strange gets increasingly proficient in the mystic arts, his character does change to someone more compassionate and open-minded, but never losing his snark, as evidenced by how he saved the day. This consistency probably contributed to the character's likability, and was the most real/ convincing thing that would happen in a superhero movie.
With the movie's overwhelming focus on Strange, the other characters were relegated as Strange's sidekicks and support team. McAdam's Dr Christine Palmer made use of what little screen time she had to aid and heal Strange, although McAdams could probably do nothing and still be likable; Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mordo was the good-natured and straight- laced teaching assistant, whose rigid personality probably made him the most disillusioned by the Ancient One's doings; and for all the cries of whitewashing, Swinton does an admirable job playing the mystical and otherworldly Ancient One.
For the Marvel fans this review would probably not change your mind on this movie. So for the non-Marvel fans out there (like me), the movie was an entertaining departure from the other superhero movies throughout the year, and worth the watch even if it is to tide you *Sherlock* fans over until next year.
After committing papal heresy in 'The Da Vinci Code' and 'Angels and
Demons', renowned Harvard University symbiologist Robert Langdon is in
arguably less controversial territory with 'Inferno', which sees him
pitted against a crazed billionaire geneticist who has invented the
titular doomsday virus to wipe out half of the world's population. To
be sure, Langdon will not come face to face with the madman named
Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) not only does a pre- credits sequence
establish Zobrist's obsession with humanity's imminent demise through
overpopulation, it also shows the man pursued along the streets of
Florence, Italy, and finally throwing himself off a bell tower.
Instead, Langdon finds himself plunged into the world of 14th century
Italian poet Dante Alighieri's 'The Divine Comedy' with a series of
apocalyptic visions that accompany his apparent head trauma from a
gunshot wound, which also causes him to suffer from mild retrograde
Or so his doe-eyed helpmeet doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) claims, who after saving him from a female carabineri Vayentha (Ana Ularu) in hospital, seems all too willing to be his sidekick sleuth in uncovering a series of clues that will lead them to the virus, beginning with a 'Faraday pointer' containing an altered image of Botticelli's 'Map of Hell' illustration. The trail will lead them across exotic locations in Florence from the Boboli Gardens to the Palazzo Vecchio to the Florence Baptistry and Venice before finally culminating in Istanbul's Hagia Sofia. To make things more exciting of course, Langdon finds himself the target of multiple competing parties, including the World Health Organization director- general Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen), her possibly rogue gang of heavily-armed operatives led by Christoph (Omar Sy), and last but not least the ace fixer Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan) of a shadowy consortium.
As much as the chase does lend itself to some big-screen cinematic thrills, Dan Brown's Langdon series were probably more suited for the page, seeing as how lengthy chunks of exposition were devoted to educating its readers on the myriad historical references that served as an intricate web of clues for its protagonist. To screenwriter David Koepp's (returning from 2009's 'Angels and Demons) credit, he has effectively streamlined Brown's novel into an effective race-against-time mystery thriller that stays true to the essence of its source. Fans of the book will no doubt draw their comparisons (and let's just say that there are some significant deviations, most prominently the bleak ending which probably would come across too nihilistic for a mainstream audience), but the distillation complete with reversals, flashbacks and a midway twist has enabled Ron Howard (who also directed the earlier two adaptations) to produce his most pacey instalment yet of the three- quel.
Oh yes, 'Inferno' is probably the least faithful of them, though arguably for the better. Unlike the plodding 'Da Vinci Code', the first hour moves at an almost breathless pace as Langdon and Sienna go from gallery to gallery tracing Zobrist's steps as well as figuring out the allegiance of the assorted figures that seem bent on acquiring the virus. Howard also injects a stronger stylistic audacity to 'Inferno' than his 2006 and 2009 predecessors, in particular in his imagining of the hellish visions that Langdon is plagued with that of white- eyed lepers kneeling by the roads, sorcerers with their heads twisted around, and streets covered in rivers of blood. Perhaps the only time his film comes up for air is just before the explosive finale set in a red subterranean Turkish bath, with a romantic subplot between Langdon and Sinskey expertly played by two accomplished actors for all that it is worth. Howard also gives some room for the consortium's enigmatic Provost to impress with his wryness and spryness in the latter half, which Khan reciprocates with a ripe but fun performance.
Because 'Inferno' was never made or meant to be character-driven, it rests squarely yet again on Hanks' shoulders to make his character appealing. Indeed, Langdon was never an immediately likable person; in fact, his self-aware intellect quite often turns into self- absorbed pomposity. Yet the ultra-genial Hanks downplays these characteristics for a down-to-earth, sometimes even self- deprecating, portrayal that makes Langdon amiable companion over the film's two hours. Truth be told, the popularity of Dan Brown's super-tourist semiology thrillers with their initially refreshing high-minded emphasis on art and culture has somewhat faded in the decade since, but 'Inferno' is still a sufficiently exciting mystery thriller in its own right, thanks to Howard's sure-handed direction and Hanks' ever-reliable presence. If, as its tagline suggests, 'The Da Vinci Code' and 'Angels and Demons' were just the beginning, then you'd be glad to know that this third Ron Howard adaptation of the Dan Brown series is certainly bigger and better.
There was a time when Wong Jing was funny. That time, unfortunately, is
over, as audiences discovered over the dreadfully unfunny 'From Vegas
to Macau III' earlier this year. 'Mission Milano' is his first movie
after that disaster though he has written two other equally dreary
films (namely, 'iGirl' and 'Girl of the Big House') and it is only
marginally better. At the very least, there is a somewhat coherent plot
to string together the mostly infantile gags, which involves Andy Lau's
Interpol Agent Sampan Hung (whose Chinese name is洪金寶) teaming up with
Huang Xiaoming's billionaire entrepreneur Louis Luo to stop a Japanese
criminal organisation Crescent from selling the latest bio- technology
known as the 'Seed of God' to a terrorist conglomerate KMAX. And yet,
this globe-trotting spy spoof is ultimately done in by Wong Jing's
sloppy writing and slapdash direction, which not even the stars with
their palpable charisma can redeem.
As much as it draws its name from the Italian city, 'Mission Milano' only spends at most a third of its time in it, hopscotching from Paris (where Andy gets one of the rare bright spots of the film fighting an unknown assassin dressed as a French maid), to Hong Kong (where he is given his current assignment by his reticent boss played by Shen Teng), to Shanghai (where he recruits Louis to help him retrieve the 'Seed of God'), to Macau (upon sighting of one of KMAX's cronies Iron Hawk), to Milan (where Crescent plans to sell the technology it stole to KMAX), and lastly to Central Europe (where KMAX operates from its military base complete with its own runway). All that running around from city to city is really no more than an excuse for Wong Jing to stage one lame stunt after another against a different backdrop, but there is no disguising just how juvenile, scattershot and derivative these supposedly amusing gags really are.
Stealing first from James Bond, Wong Jing gives Lau's Agent Sampan Hung the code number 119, decorates his superior's office with the signature 'gun barrel' backdrop, and then assigns him a weapons specialist called Bing Bing to equip him with an iPhone to help him on the field by shooting fire and shock needles. Along the way, Wong Jing continues to 'borrow' far better-executed ideas from elsewhere including sonic guns from 'Minority Report' that Crescent uses at Haitian Technologies to capture the 'Seed of God', laser-beam fortified corridors from 'Resident Evil' that Crescent uses to secure the technology, an 'Initial D' race sequence down a narrow dimly-lit hillside road at night, a Jedi Knight light sabre that Agent Sampan pulls from his phone/ weapon-of-choice against Iron Hawk, and last but not least Wolverine claws that Crescent uses against Agent Hung, Louis and fellow Interpol agent Phoenix (Michelle Hu) in a mid-air finale that Wong rips from his own 'From Vegas to Macau II'.
Most of these 'appropriated' jokes do not last long largely because Wong Jing lacks the conviction and creativity to make them pop but the running gags are not much better. One pokes fun at Louis' mother's (Petrina Fung) early-onset dementia, which plays out as her mistaking Louis' buddy Amon (Wong Cho-Lam) as the family dog Meatball and mistaking a goldfish bowl for a bowl of fish soup that she has prepared for Louis. Another has Agent Sampan, Louis and Amon taking turns to charm Crescent's head of security Sophie (Evonne Sie) in order to get an image of her iris to unlock the facility where the 'Seed of God' has been stored, which leads to an over-the- top sequence where Louis spits vodka laced with Tabasco sauce into Sophie's eyes to get her to remove her contact lens. There is no doubt it is all slapstick, but Wong Jing sets his own bar too low that the comedy ends up infantile.
Character work has never been Wong Jing's strong suite, and 'Mission Milano' proves no different. Lau's Agent 119 is all over the place, suave because it fits his mug yet seemingly insecure in the face of danger. Especially incongruous is a subplot that sees his character struggling to decide whether to call his estranged wife whom he misses, an otherwise pointless addition that pays off only for the last- minute cameo of Sammi Cheng as his spouse. Xiaoming does most of the kung- fu fighting (on account possibly of Lau's relative age), and is called on additionally just to look debonair throughout. Hu's silver-haired Interpol spy is intriguing at the start, but proves just as flat as the two lead male characters as the movie progresses. Ditto for Amon and Louis' other sidekick, Ka Yan (Nana Ouyang), whose supporting roles are even more paper-thin, and except for their introductory sequence where they tag-team to test Louis' fighting skills, are pretty much non-existent.
Even by Wong Jing's standards, 'Mission Milano' ranks as one of his more disposable entries in addition to forgettable plotting and characters (which is generally true of most of his movies), there is a distinct lack of wit or humour in most of the gags. Only because the narrative is less incoherent does it fare better than Wong Jing's last spectacular misfire, but like we said at the start, that doesn't mean that the prolific (and some say infamous, if you loathe his 'mo lei tau' style) director has regained his comedic mojo. For Andy Lau's fans in particular, his latest collaboration following 'From Vegas to Macau III' depletes even more of their goodwill, and we'd hope for the sake of his reputation as an actor that his next which sees him reprise one of his iconic roles Lee Rock will be a creative rebound for himself as well as for his writer-director Wong Jing (again).
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